Our garden gets a rest

When you’re used to growing vegetables, it’s tough to give it up for a year.

Kahampha Bouaphanh/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT/Newscom

This is the year that I am planning not to garden. It will be the first time in many years with no dirt plot in our yard.

When we moved to Texas, one consolation for being so far from my side of the family was the two gardening seasons, one from February till June and the other from September till the one or two really cold days of December.

My green beans attached themselves to the pampas grass. A banana tree shoot sneaked under the neighbor’s fence and launched itself in our yard. Red calla lilies crept under the opposite fence and formed a vibrant row.

The day we sold the house, the garden plot, made originally from a wading pool that had fallen apart, had tomatoes, lettuce, and beans. I gave the blooming aloe vera plants to friends, and we headed north.

In Connecticut, we arrived on the day of our new parish’s Russian Festival, a celebration with food, flowers, and vendors.

The parishioners gave us all the leftover plants we wanted, and I started a container garden at the house we were renting until we bought a home of our own. The furniture and walls were different, but the cucumbers and peppers were familiar and all our own.

When we finally were in a permanent home, it was already October. It was too late to see what was planted there already and also too late to start a garden in earnest. But what I could do was prepare.

The one sunny spot of the yard held what used to be the stump of a cedar tree. It had started to rot, and I decided to dig it out. None of the children wanted to help, so I contented myself with doing the work alone, like the little red hen, until I overturned one section and gasped in horror, “Look at all those horrible, slimy bugs!”

It was like the moment on the old quiz show “You Bet Your Life” when someone said the right word and the duck would drop down: All three of my sons, who were idling in another part of the yard, came running. The two little boys from next door charged over. And the two children who lived on the other side of us put their rabbit in the hutch and jumped the fence to see what was so gross.

After that, I couldn’t get near the patch, as seven children vied with one another for the shovel and hoes and for digging and bragging rights. I went inside, washed up, and made lemonade.

The first year of our Connecticut garden, my daughter’s ninth-grade class grew tomatoes. She became our expert, explaining how to remove the lower leaves to strengthen the fruit. I planted my rows of lettuce, beans, and squashes while she critiqued and watered. New friends taught us which plants were weeds and which were worth keeping. We were given clippings and shared culled seedlings. The plants were not all that grew roots.

Over the ensuing years, my garden has been a source of comfort. After Sept. 11, 2001, we neglected it for a few days until the roads to New York City, where my baby sister worked, were reopened.

Then my family from Boston came down and my sister from Astoria came up, and we ate a consolation feast together, mourning those who were lost and celebrating the lives of those who escaped harm. Mom picked more than two pounds of beans from the vines, to supplement the ham and salads and potatoes, enough to feed us all as we squeezed around the table.

My garden has also been a source of frustration. But the shared failures of our gardens two years in a row gave me something to talk about with the neighbors as we got to know one another better at the open-house party our block throws each fall.

Knowing that my tomatoes were as pathetic as my neighbor’s squashes made us both feel better; the fault did not lie with either of us.
But this year, we will have had a garden in the same plot of ground for seven years.

The soil could use a rest. And we have graduations: My daughter is finishing college this month, her brother is completing high school in June, and our youngest is graduating middle school a few days later.

I also have a talk to give in June, relatives to visit in July, and camp to volunteer for come August. All that creates too many gaps for cultivating anything as dependent on constant attention as a garden.

I didn’t realize the amount of planning and anticipation that gardening takes until I suddenly had nothing to plan for this year. The bags of bulbs sang their siren song as I passed in the store. I walked past seed displays and sighed. It’s only a year off, but all of a sudden that bond with sun and soil is severed.

So I have found a way to cheat. Just as we did in the house we rented, I will line the end of the driveway with large plastic containers. One can hold Best Boy tomatoes.

Another can hold a vine of sturdy grape tomatoes. Two or three kinds of green beans can go in others. Perhaps this year we will have squashes, too.

Six planters are not enough to make a garden. But they might be enough to make a difference. When we neighbors compare our harvests, I might not have a whole garden to discuss, but I will have some small stake, a contribution, an anecdote. There is no age at which we are too old to want to play in the dirt.

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